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'The Girl in Green in the Ralph F. Colin collection, New York, was painted in the apartment on the Place Charles-Félix and is more indicative of Matisse's direction in 1921 than either the big grey Interior done earlier in the year or the Woman before an Aquarium. Again flowers and figures are balanced in a delicate equilibrium, enriched by arabesques, bright stripings and the blue sea seen through the shutters - decorative elements which appear again and again in pictures of this and the following year. Many of them however lack the relatively firm and thoughtful structure of the Girl in Green' (A.H. Barr, Jr., Matisse: His Art and His Public, New York, 1951 (reprinted 1966), p. 210).
Painted in 1921, Jeune fille à la moresque, robe verte dates from the near the beginning of Henri Matisse's time in Nice, a period that would last for the large part of the following two decades. This picture combines two of his most preferred motifs: women and windows. Here, the figure in green is leaning languidly against the window frame; the partially closed shutters imply that it is a bright, warm day in Nice. This picture is filled with the sense of visual rhythm that Matisse was actively exploring during this period, as well as the sensuality of the South and of the Mediterranean which breathes through the greatest of his pictures of that time. With her loose-fitting outfit à la moresque, sometimes referred to in variant titles for this picture as a gandoura, Matisse can be seen to be referring to his Odalisques, which would come to dominate his output over the coming years. This picture occupies a seminal place within the artist's oeuvre, having featured in a number of important collections over the years, including those of Marcel Kapferer, Lillie P. Bliss and Ralph F. Colin among others. It has featured in a string of exhibitions devoted to Matisse, from a show held by his dealers, the Bernheim-Jeunes, in 1922 to many of the retrospectives that have honoured the artist over the decades. It has also featured in a large number of monographs dedicated to Matisse, emphasising its importance within his oeuvre.
Most writers, including the legendary curator Alfred H. Barr, Jr, have stated that Jeune fille à la moresque, robe verte was painted in Matisse's apartment on the third floor at 1, place Charles-Félix, to which he had moved at the end of 1921. This would appear to be authoritative, as Barr had unparalleled access to Matisse, his papers and the recollections of his family members when he wrote the 1951 retrospective catalogue which featured this picture; the draft was even corrected by the artist's son, the art dealer Pierre Matisse (see A.H. Barr, Jr., Matisse: His Art and His Public, New York, 1951 (reprinted 1966), p. 210). Recent exhibition catalogues have concurred, identifying the model as Henriette Darricarrère. This picture, then, dates from near the beginning of Matisse's collaboration with Henriette, one of his most important muses, whom he had first met when she was working as an extra in Nice's movie industry. Henriette introduced a lithe theatricality to Matisse's works, often taking on the role of the Odalisque. Here, she is in costume, wearing the billowing gandoura, leaning on the windowsill next to a bowl of flowers, turning her head towards the viewer, and by extension, the painter. This lends the picture an incredible sense of immediacy, with the direct gaze of the subject involving us in a form of dialogue, in a stolen, stilled moment: Matisse plunges the viewer into the sensual world of the South.
In his Nice paintings, Matisse abandoned some of the rigidity that had marked many of his more recent pictures, instead invoking a world of light, colour and even eroticism. This was an explosion of celebration of the joie de vivre which marked a welcome contrast to the tension that had pervaded France during the First World War. Matisse, heading to the South, had gone in search of some reverberation of the exotic, heading towards the North African climes that had previously so fascinated him and to which Jeune fille à la moresque, robe verte, with its rich sense of ornamentation and its gandoura, relates. Matisse had been working hard and rigorously, and the South acted like a siren:
'Morocco had excited all my senses... The intoxication of the sun long held me in its spell. I was coming out of long, wearying years of effort, after many inner conflicts... I had to catch my breath, to relax and forget my worries, far from Paris. The Odalisques were the fruit of a happy nostalgia, of a lovely, lively dream and of the almost ecstatic, enchanted experience of those days and nights, in the incantation of the Moroccan climate. I felt an irresistible need to express that ecstasy, that divine nonchalance, in corresponding coloured rhythms, the rhythms of sunny and lavish figures and colours...' (Matisse, quoted in J. Flam, ed., Matisse on Art, Berkeley & Los Angeles, 1995, pp. 300-1).
Matisse was lured to the South of France by the light, and by the prospect of escaping into a realm in which he could rediscover the simple, sensuous joy of the arabesque. Elaborate patterns returned to his work, insinuating themselves even more freely after his move to 1, place Charles-Félix: now, in his own rooms, he was able to create the ever-changing scenery that would provide such a rich backdrop to his pictures, for instance in the patterned material in Jeune fille à la moresque, robe verte, which also features in L'attente of 1921-22, formerly in the Lucien Abrams collection, and Femme assise, le dos tourné vers la fenêtre ouverte of 1921-23, now in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Matisse's interest in costume also blossomed, resulting in the images of Odalisques, inspired by the harem. These textiles were also a pretext for colour and pattern, as is clear from outfits such as the one worn by the lying woman in Intérieur avec deux figures, fenêtre ouverte in the Barnes Collection, where the stripes of the more exotic outfit add to the general composition. In that picture, as in Jeune fille à la moresque, robe verte, a window behind the figures offers its glimpse of the blue sea and the green bursts of palm fronds.
Matisse's rich overture to the senses is encapsulated not only in the visual feast that is Jeune fille à la moresque, robe verte, with its complex range of contrasting forms and patterns, but also in its evocation of the sultry heat of the South of France. The sense of shelter from the sun is conjured with particular care in this painting, as was noted by Nicholas Watkins. The former owners of this picture, Ralph and Georgia Colin, recalled a conversation with the artist in which he discussed its creation; they told Watkins, who wrote:
'In some cases [Matisse] was as interested in the representation of objects and atmospheric effects as in the model. He remembered with pride the way he had achieved in Young Girl in Green of 1921 the sensation of heat rising outside the shutters, and also the trouble he had taken painting the bunch of anemones which vies for attention with the head of the model, as in a diptych or double-portrait. There is a detailed drawing for the young girl, posed as in the painting but in the nude, which demonstrates the thoroughness of Matisse's preparatory work even in such a seemingly spontaneous interior' (N. Watkins, Matisse, Oxford, 1984, p. 159).
The drawing mentioned appears to have been Nu à la fen être, which was also in the Colins' collection and which bears very strong compositional similarities to Jeune fille à la moresque, robe verte, including the presence of the slanted blinds and the position of the subject's hands and feet (however, when offered by Christie's as part of the sale of their collection in 1995, the drawing was ascribed a date of 1946).
The paintings that Matisse created in Nice in the late 1910s and early 1920s were the result of a new development in his work. In an interview with Ragnar Hoppe in 1919, only two years before Matisse painted Jeune fille à la moresque, robe verte, the artist discussed his earlier picture, Intérieur au violon of 1917-18, now in the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, in terms that demonstrated that he considered it a watershed. He explained, 'I am seeking a new synthesis' (Matisse, quoted in 'Interview with Ragnar Hoppe', 1919, pp. 73-77, Flam, ed., op. cit., 1995, p. 75). In that picture, a room bathed in shadow is illuminated by the gleam of the sun-drenched sea and shutters through the window as well as a violin case in the foreground. The shutters, with their combination of horizontal, vertical and diagonal forms, play an important role as both signs and as patterns, revealing Matisse's increasing interest in more ornamental ways of juxtaposing colour than the planar works that he had previously been creating; the shades would be used to similar effect in another picture of a single figure with windows and ornamentation around her, Intérieur à Nice, la sieste, painted only a few months later and now in the Musée national d'Art moderne - Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
Looking back on the period, Matisse said, in terms that can clearly be seen to relate to Jeune fille à la moresque, robe verte, 'With the Odalisques, I don't renounce what I had recently gained, those plastic advances... but I return to a more profound resonance, I again accept a certain kind of model and once again I take possession of a space where the air circulates freely again. In them was posed this problem for me: to attune and balance pure colours and half-tones so as to assure the painting's harmony and rhythmic unity against the possible danger of chromatic shrillness...' (Matisse, quoted in ibid., p. 301). For Matisse, the pictures created in the South of France combined opulent ornamentation, which evoked the realm of the senses, with structures that allowed him to explore the potential of colour both to sing on the canvas in its own right and also to convey a sense of space. Accordingly, in Jeune fille à la moresque, robe verte Matisse has deliberately juxtaposed the diagonal forms in the patterned material underneath the window with the diagonal shutters leaning outside. In this way, he has allowed the diagonals to serve as an artistic device to convey perspective, leading the viewer's eye out to the coast, trees and sea so tantalisingly glimpsed outside.
Matisse was exploring the visual language of representation by assembling a composition that allowed him to highlight the dual purpose of these diagonals, creating the fictive sense of space while also highlighting the complex yet coherent patterns of paint upon the picture surface. Underscoring the quasi-abstraction of the textile below the window and the carpet with its arabesques, Matisse has included a burst of flowers on the sill, adding another pretext for an exploration of colour; meanwhile, the sliver of green of the gandoura forms an emerald-like contrast with the other colours that he has employed. This all combines to create the 'synthesis' that Matisse explained he was seeking: 'A synthesis both pictorial and moral, governed always by laws of harmony, held strict dominions over my work. A will to rhythmic abstraction was battling with my natural, innate desire for rich, warm, generous colours and forms, in which the arabesque strove to establish its supremacy. From this duality issued works that, overcoming my inner constraints, were realised in the union of contrasts' (Matisse, quoted in ibid., p. 301).
Shortly after it was painted, Jeune fille à la moresque, robe verte was shown in Matisse's then-annual exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris, which took place early in 1922; from that show, Matisse's Odalisque à la culotte rouge was acquired by the State, an important mark of recognition. That year, his daughter Marguerite would write about the unpacking of his works before the show, which had been sent North from Nice and which probably included Jeune fille à la moresque, robe verte: 'I feel this evening as if I'd had three solid hours of music. I'm drunk with it, and can't either look or judge any more' (Marguerite, quoted in H. Spurling, Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954, London, 2005, p. 253). That year, Matisse's gallery held a dinner in his honour which included, amongst its guests, two of the art dealers through whose hands Jeune fille à la moresque, robe verte would pass, Etienne Bignou, the co-owner with the Bernheims of the Galerie Georges Petit, who would later have an eponymous gallery of his own, and Valentine Dudensing. A New York-based dealer in partnership with Pierre Matisse, Dudensing would form what later became the Valentine Gallery, an important, trailblazing place with acclaimed exhibitions which played an important role in forming the American taste and market for European pictures between the wars.
Jeune fille à la moresque, robe verte was owned by Marcel Kapferer, the French director of Royal Dutch Shell who amassed a formidable collection of works by artists including Vincent van Gogh and Edouard Vuillard. Vuillard in fact painted Kapferer twice, once with his brother, another successful businessman who had founded the company that would later become Air France. According to Margrit Hahnloser-Ingold, Jeune fille à la moresque, robe verte was then acquired by Mrs E.A. Workman, an important Scottish collector; it swiftly went to Bignou, who had strong connections with the American market and who was also one of the European agents for the famous collector Albert C. Barnes (see M. Hahnloser-Ingold, 'Collecting Matisses of the 1920s in the 1920s', pp. 235-74, J. Cowart & D. Fourcade, Henri Matisse: The Early Years in Nice 1916-1930, exh. cat., Washington, D.C. & New York, 1986, p. 273). Through these connections, Jeune fille à la moresque, robe verte was acquired by Dudensing, who sold it to the legendary collector Lillie P. Bliss in 1929. Two years later, Jeune fille à la moresque, robe verte was a part of the hugely important bequest that Bliss left to the still fledgling Museum of Modern Art, New York; it was toured extensively as a part of this group of over a hundred pictures. This was essentially the founding of the permanent collection of the MoMA, which until that point had largely been an exhibition space. Bliss, a prominent heiress, socialite and philanthropist who had been involved in founding the Armory show in New York, which had become a beacon for the avant garde in the United States, specified that the works in her collection, apart from two by Paul Cézanne and one by Honoré Daumier, were able to be sold in order to raise funds for future purchases; this happened with Jeune fille à la moresque, robe verte in 1944.
The picture subsequently entered the collection of Ralph and Georgia Colin, a prominent New York-based couple. Ralph F. Colin was a lawyer and his wife an interior designer. It is a mark of the quality of their collection that, when it was exhibited at the Knoedler Gallery in 1960, James Thrall Soby - who himself had bought pictures by Matisse from Valentine Dudensing - wrote the introduction to the catalogue. In it, he said, 'the Colins have a diligent and scholarly approach to their avocation... they comb the galleries here and abroad with energy, they bring to their purchases not only instinctive flair, but comparative standards which allow them often to recognise quality within quality, that is to pick out outstanding works by outstanding artists. As a result, their collection abounds [with] absolute jewels' (J. Thrall Soby, quoted in Important Modern Works of Art from the Collection of Mr and Mrs Ralph F. Colin, Christie's catalogue, 10 May 1995, p. 17). The Colins collected with discerning taste; their sensibility was reflected in the fact that they became friends with a number of artists, such as Jean Dubuffet and Joan Miró. Their collection included works by those artists, as well as others by Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Paul Klee, Amedeo Modigliani, Giorgio Morandi and Pablo Picasso.